Monday, May 19, 2014

Wordcraft -- How to write great narrative nonfiction

I intended to write about query letters today. But with deadlines for the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference coming up fast, I wanted to hear one of the great American writers of the nonfiction long form, Isabel Wilkerson, discuss her 2010 bestselling book, The Warmth of Other Suns, at Literature for Real: Journalism, The American Canon, and the Evolving American South, at SMU last Friday.

Subtitled The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, the book traces the mass movement of African-Americans from the South to the northern and western United States in the twentieth century, and the migration’s effect both on the individuals and on the resulting political, social and economic structure of the country.

As Chicago bureau chief of The New York Times, Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism (the first African-American woman to do so) for coverage of the 1993 Midwestern floods and her feature story of the 10-year-old African-American boy named Nicholas, left to care for his four brothers and sisters in the floods’ aftermath.

It was a great story. But about the protagonist’s identity as a black kid in the Midwest? Who in 1990’s America would raise an eyebrow at that? Probably few readers of Wilkerson’s stories wondered: why did so many black Southerners like Nicholas’s family end up so far from their original homes. Her answer to that question would take fifteen years of research and writing, and 1,200 interviews with migrants. The result would be a bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, an ALA Notable Book, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and more.

How does anyone go about writing such a book?

The first criterion is choosing a topic that resonates strongly with the writer. Wilkerson is the daughter of parents who had moved from the Carolinas to Washington, D.C., a stop, she would learn, on an informal East Coast migration route to Philadelphia and New York. But nobody in her family talked about was it was like to make such a move. Neither did most of the other people who made similar moves--up the East Coast, from the mid-South to the Midwest, from Texas and Louisiana to the West Coast.

The reasons for their moves, the struggles, the hardships were so harsh, they often felt compelled to protect their children and grandchildren from the reality behind the moves, Wilkerson said. “My mother was of the type to say, that was a long time ago, why bring it up?”

Which leads to a second criterion for being able to write a book of such caliber--being patient. “I had no idea this would take fifteen years,” Wilkerson said. “There’s no badge of honor in taking fifteen years. That’s just the way it was.” And no badge of honor, she said, but also no hardship, in interviewing 1,200 people to find the three whose stories typified so many: sharecropper wife Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, leaving Mississippi for Chicago in the 1930s; orange picker George Swanson Starling, leaving Florida for New York in the 1940s; and physician Robert Pershing Foster, leaving Louisiana for Los Angeles in the 1950s.

How does anyone manage to interview 1,200 people? “There is no substitute for just sitting in front of a person and just listening,” Wilkerson said. She had, she said, no set list of questions. “You go with whatever is on their hearts and minds at the moment. I approached them as a daughter might. But it was easier for them to talk to me because the burden of protecting someone was not as great as with an actual child.”

The significance of finding so many people ultimately willing to talk assured her, if she didn’t know it already, of the deep resonance of the story they entrusted her to tell, the story of a movement that changed a nation.

Wilkerson’s appearance was sponsored by the Office of the Provost of Southern Methodist University, Deans of Dedman College and Meadows School of Arts, SMU’s English and journalism departments, and the Scott Hawkins Lecture Fund of Dedman College. Other participants in the symposium included keynote speaker Farah Jasmine Griffin of Columbia University and panelists Ta-Nehisi Coats of The Atlantic and The New York Times, Daina Ramey Berry of the University of Texas at Austin, and Brittney Cooper of Rutgers University and

For more about Wilkerson and her work, see


I will write more later about the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, but registration closes July 1, or when full, and the deadline for contest submissions is June 13. See for more information.

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